Marie-Adelaide, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg between 1912 and 1919. Her short reign saw six prime ministers take power in the space of three years. / © RTL Archives
RTL Today contributor Thomas Tutton continues his series on politics in Luxembourg with a look at the turbulent 1910s, which saw six prime ministers in the space of three years.
The turn of the 20th century was a time of great economic and social change in Luxembourg, but the long premiership of Paul Eyschen had masked some of the country’s emerging political divisions resulting from the emergence of the party system.
His death in 1915, coupled with the German invasion of 1914, would result in a series of political crises that would engulf the Grand Duchy for the following five years.
Upon Eyschen’s death, his Director-General of Finance Mathias Mongenast was tasked with forming a government.
He would face obstruction from a particular source: the young Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide.
Marie-Adelaide was the first monarch to be born in Luxembourg since John the Blind in 1296, and she did not want to follow the example of her grandfather Adolphe and father William IV in playing a minor role in the governance of her country.
From the outset, she had demonstrated where her political sympathies lay: with the right.
Mathias Mongenast / © Thewes, Guy. Les gouvernements du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg depuis 1848.
She had waited six weeks to sign the controversial Education Act of 1912, and likewise caused problems over the nomination of the liberal mayors of Differdange and Hollerich in 1915.
Paul Eyschen had managed to keep her political ambitions in check, but with him out of the way, Marie Adelaide decided to show her teeth.
When Mathias Mongenast nominated a candidate she did not like for a vacancy at the École normale, she simply refused him, forcing him to resign after less than a month in charge.
Despite the liberal/socialist alliance’s clear 32-20 majority in the Chamber of Deputies, Marie Adelaide appointed conservative Hubert Loutsch as Prime Minister in November 1915.
Hubert Loutsch / © Thewes, Guy. Les gouvernements du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg depuis 1848.
As it quickly became clear that Loutsch could not govern Luxembourg despite the country’s growing economic and food crises, Marie Adelaide took the dramatic step of calling new elections – a power granted to her under the Luxembourgish constitution, but which had not been used for decades.
The liberals and socialists immediately decried her actions as a coup d’état, but the December elections resulted in a 27-25 split in favour of the Left Bloc.
Marie-Adelaide’s gambit had failed, and her prime minister Loutsch was forced to resign in January 1916 after losing a vote of no confidence.
After a month of tense negotiations, a new man emerged to take the reins of the Luxembourg government.
With the country facing widespread hunger and economic collapse, a new National Unity Government was formed, with 72-year-old Victor Thorn at its head.
Victor Thorn / © Thewes, Guy. Les gouvernements du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg depuis 1848.
This would be a multi-party coalition, including a Liberal Prime Minister, a Social Democrat as Director-General for Agriculture (Michel Welter) and a Director-General for Finance (Léon Kauffmann) from the Party of the Right.
To combat rising inflation and resolve the problem of food shortages, the Thorn government introduced rationing, but this resulted in a flourishing black market and created a rift between the well-provisioned countryside and hungry urban populations.
Discontent quickly spread amongst the industrial masses in the south of the country, leading workers to begin to organise themselves politically against the Thorn ministry.
The government was further weakened in December 1916 when the Chamber of Deputies passed a vote of censure against the unfortunate Michel Welter, forcing him to resign.
The population’s disapproval of the Thorn administration was demonstrated in the by-elections of 1917, when the voters of Esch-sur-Alzette voted for three independent candidates, costing the government its majority in the Chamber.
The final straw for Thorn came in June 1917. A strike in Luxembourg’s industrial south was crushed by the German army, showing the government’s ultimate weakness in the face of the occupying force, and Thorn was forced to resign.
Later that same month, Léon Kauffmann became the Party of the Right’s first prime minister when he managed to recruit the support of a number of liberals in the Chamber.
Léon Kauffmann / © Thewes, Guy. Les gouvernements du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg depuis 1848.
The price of that support, however, was a reform of Luxembourg’s constitution.
In November 1917, the Chamber debated some of the key issues, including the introduction of universal suffrage, with votes for women; the use of proportional representation; the payment of deputies, to ensure that not only wealthy industrialists could afford to sit in the Chamber; and the question of sovereignty.
This last issue would prove the most difficult. Kauffmann refused to accept the Chamber’s recommendation that article 32 of the constitution should be revised to specify that sovereignty resided in the nation, and not in the person of the Grand Duke or Duchess.
Kauffmann’s government also faced mounting problems with the Grand Duchess, whose seemingly close ties with key figures in the German Empire not only clashed with Luxembourg’s status as a neutral power, but also tarnished its international reputation at a time when Germany’s armies were on the retreat.
The Prime Minister’s attendance at a ball given to host German chancellor Georg von Hertling in August 1918 resulted in his government’s final loss of credibility, and he was forced to resign the following month.
When Émile Reuter assumed power in September 1918, he became the sixth prime minister to hold office since 1915.
He faced a continuing economic crisis, a highly problematic monarch, political instability and the looming end of the First World War.
But as we will see next time his government would not only survive; it would actively thrive in the early 1920s, restoring the country to a well-needed stability after four years of political chaos.